Government spending, including the lucrative PR and marketing contracts assigned by the Department of Health and Human Services, is firmly in politicians' crosshairs as this election draws to a close. However, agency executives are optimistic these marcomms accounts will remain in place no matter who inhabits the White House.
At the beginning of this year, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Rob Portman (R-OH) asked 11 federal agencies for summaries of contracts for PR, publicity, advertising, communications and similar services dating back to October 2008. The lawmakers said they witnessed wasteful spending on PR contracts to defend unpopular Obama Administration policies.
In May, GOP lawmakers expressed outrage after PRWeek broke news about Porter Novelli winning a contract worth nearly $20 million to promote parts of the Affordable Care Act. One lawmaker even introduced legislation to void the contract and others have threatened to subpoena the Department of Health and Human Services for the RFP that preceded the account.
Despite this, and the Romney campaign promising to cut government spending if elected next week, agency executives are optimistic that federal contracts for PR services will remain intact regardless of who wins the presidency on November 6.
“[Our] experience is that under the leadership of both political parties, the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies have supported communications campaigns that have effectively promoted good health and prevented disease,” says Ramona DuBose, associate director for media relations at FHI 360. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded her company $3.1 million in work to promote anti-diabetes and anti-HIV initiatives.
At this point, most federal agencies have already earmarked projects for next year, so they will move forward regardless of who wins the White House, explains Neil Dhillon, MD and US director of public affairs at MSLGroup.
“They still need marketing and communications programs to implement their programs. In fact, they strongly depend on it, as they don't have the resources or staff to execute,” he adds.
Other agency leaders think that going after PR contracts is low-hanging fruit, compared with other government initiatives.
“I think it's an easy target for people,” says one PR executive whose firm has won federal contracts that have been criticized by lawmakers. “In reality, PR is necessary to promote programs.”
Others note that the increased scrutiny from Capitol Hill has caused some federal agencies to become more cautious when awarding accounts. For instance, several agencies have been waiting 10 months for the Internal Revenue Service to award a PR contract that could be worth up to $15 million over five years.
Many in the running for the account expected a selection this summer. About that time, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KN), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, attempted to prohibit the IRS from using appropriated funds to contract PR services.
He withdrew his amendment after FSGG Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) included language in an appropriations bill to prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars to enhance the IRS' image. Since then, the PR contract has been in legal review at the agency.
Agency executives say it is difficult for proponents of government PR work to find statistics that show promotional campaigns actually cut costs for taxpayers in the long run. For instance, many studies show campaigns have raised awareness about particular ailments but hardly any research indicates a correlation to actual cost-cutting.
There are some exceptions. For instance, the CDC says its “Former Smokers” campaign will result in more than $170 million saved over three years, based on the cost-benefits of quitting smoking, says Karen Hunter, a senior public affairs specialist at the CDC.
She feels that campaigns such as “Former Smokers” are crucial for public health. “CDC conducts awareness campaigns to inform Americans about risks to their health and actions they can take to prevent disease and promote overall health,” Hunter adds. “Mass media provides powerful and efficient channels to reach population segments in need of such information.”